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Frank D. Drake (1930-2022)

Drake pioneered the field of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).

Published onApr 25, 2023
Frank D. Drake (1930-2022)
Figure 1

Photo credit: Seth Shostak

Frank Donald Drake, an astronomer who pioneered the field of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) died on Friday September 2, 2022 at the age of 92.

Born in Chicago, Illinois on May 28, 1930, Drake showed an early interest in chemistry and electronics. He entered Cornell University as an undergraduate and was a participant in the Navy’s Reserve Officer Training Corps. Upon graduation, he was assigned to the U.S.S. Albany and put in charge of the ship’s electronics. When he entered Harvard University as a graduate student in radio astronomy he continued to follow this interest in electronics.

At Harvard he earned his Ph.D. and then took a position with the newly constituted National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia. The fledgling Observatory purchased a radio telescope “kit” from the Blaw-Knox Corporation in 1958 in order to quickly have a research-grade instrument until a planned, larger antenna could be built. A year later, the assembled telescope, with its 85-foot reflector, was outfitted for observations and dedicated to Howard Tatel, an engineer who designed its novel mount. This prompted the NRAO director to suggest to Drake that he come up with a research program to use the new instrument..

Drake decided to follow another of his long-standing interests, and search for extraterrestrial transmissions at microwave frequencies. The idea that intelligent beings elsewhere might be using radio as a communication mode was already had already been established – both Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla had attempted to pick up signals from Mars that they could attribute to beings on the Red Planet. With the greater astronomical sophistication that had developed by the 1950s, Drake opted to skip Mars, and point the Tatel Radio Telescope in the direction of two nearby (about 12 light-years) stars, tau Ceti and epsilon Eridani.

For several weeks Drake searched for radio emission from the vicinity of these stars. The receiver was a commercial product designed for shortwave listening, and he used a simple motor drive to sweep its tuning up and down the dial. He chose to look at frequencies adjacent to the radio emission line (1420 MHz) of neutral hydrogen, on the grounds that this naturally produced line would be known to any technically proficient civilization, and therefore would serve as a marker for the guidance of societies who might wish to make contact. Drake was unaware of a paper published in 1959 by two Cornell University physicists who were arguing for just such experiments, pointing out that anyone with technology that was at least as advanced as our own could send detectable radio signals.

Drake named this first modern SETI experiment Project Ozma, a reference to the princess in Frank Baum’s books, as she was in a world “both wonderful and far away.” Although Project Ozma didn’t detect any extraterrestrial transmissions, it nonetheless attracted world-wide attention. As a consequence, the National Academy of Sciences suggested that Drake organize a small conference to discuss the nature and potential of trying to find evidence of intelligence in the cosmos. Thus, in the summer of 1961 a group of about a dozen prominent scientists and engineers met in Green Bank. As an agenda for this gathering, Drake wrote a simple equation, consisting of seven concatenated terms whose product would be the estimated number of galactic societies who were producing signals that we, at least in principle, could discover. This formulation has become known as the Drake Equation, and is cited as the second most-famous equation in science (after Einstein’s E = mc2).

Drake eventually worked at Cornell, the Arecibo radio telescope, and at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He became president of the SETI Institute after its founding in 1984. He continued to promote SETI even after his official retirement in 2010 at the age of eighty. As he said at the time, “I’m never going to retire from SETI.”

Frank Drake was a man of extensive influence, inspiring many of today’s SETI practitioners who, as students, were informed by his efforts. A book published in 1992 and co-authored with Dava Sobel, “Is Anyone Out There?”, describes his career in detail. He was a soft-spoken person of perpetual good humor and astounding patience. When asked whether his tranquil demeanor was due to dealing with his children, he smiled and responded “No. It was students.”

It is a rare scientific discipline for which the pioneer can live to see an idea and experiment become a continuing research endeavor, one that fascinates not just scientists, but the public at large. His initiative led to the flowering of SETI, an effort that promises to someday deliver profoundly important news; namely, that Earth is not the only world to have spawned life able to seek out and find other worlds that have done the same.

Drake leaves behind his wife, Amahl and two daughters, as well as three children from a previous marriage.

Drake’s AstroGen entry

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